Our family does a lot of traveling. With both Alfie's and my parents living on opposite sides of the world, we have to take 10 and 14-hour plane rides just to visit! We usually alternate visits so that the kids can see their grandparents; one year we all go to the Philippines for Christmas, and the next year we all go to the UK for the summer. While we're there, we try to set up some side trips so that we get to see other places and experience new things.
Obviously, all of this doesn't come cheap for a family of five. Plane tickets alone, to such far-away destinations, can cost over $7000 in the high season! So we really have to watch our money and look for the best bargains we can for any of our side trips while we're in the Philippines or in the UK, or when we want to indulge in a short weekend getaway or other (comparatively minor) vacation. Here are some things we do to find family travel deals.
1) Plan, plan, plan
Knowledge is power! The more you know about a place, the more likely it will be that you can find inexpensive places to stay and inexpensive things to do. Search the web for articles on family travel to your destination -- they almost always include information on free or cheap things to do, like parks, museums, free festivals and the like.
2) Search for deals
Websites like Kayak.com, Expedia.com and Travelocity.com are always our first destination whenever we are thinking about taking a vacation that involves plane tickets. They are a great way to compare airline ticket prices to get the best deals. We are lucky that there are 3 major airports in the San Francisco Bay Area, which gives us the option to depart from the airport that shows the lowest fares.
3) Travel in the off-season or non-peak days
I know this isn't always possible (i.e. if you want to see your relatives during the holiday season, you have to travel during the holiday season), but if your schedule is at all flexible, plan to fly in the off-season. If your kids are still in the preschool stage, take your vacations when all the big kids are in school (i.e. September, October, November)! If you have school-aged kids, consider taking them out of school -- bear in mind that travel can be a really educational experience. (when we do take the kids out of school, I always give them workbooks to complete while we're traveling, and have them do a journal so they can do a presentation to their class when they get back). Again, sites like Expedia, Kayak, Travelocity as well as most major airline sites have features that let you compare fares to see which dates and periods the fares are lower.
4) Stay in lower-budget hotels
Don't be afraid of one or two star hotels. They're not all roach-infested dives -- some of them, especially in Europe, are clean, comfortable, small, family-owned establishments! Oftentimes the reason they are classified as one or two star accommodations is that they don't have the facilities of more luxurious hotels -- for example, many places in Amsterdam do not have elevators. Pay attention to reviews by travelers who have stayed in the place, rather than how many stars a hotel has.
5) BYOB -- Bring your own Breakfast
If we can, we take our own boxes of cereal with us so we can forego expensive hotel breakfasts. Of course, it may not be convenient (i.e. we usually only do it if we're driving to our destination and we know the hotel room has a fridge); in that case, we find a local diner or a supermarket where we can buy our own food.
6) Swap homes
Accommodations are one of the biggest cost items on any family travel budget, so consider signing up for a home or vacation swap. Basically, you find a family in the place you want to visit, who wants to visit the place were you live, and you live in each other's homes while you're on vacation. We've never done this, but I've heard that many families find it to be a rewarding experience and a great way to save money. Make sure you do your research beforehand!
For our family of five, the cost of five plane tickets plus the cost of renting a car at our destination can be prohibitive, so if the destination is within an 8 hour drive, we would rather take our car. Sure, it takes a while, but think about how much time it takes to get to an airport -- 2 hours before the flight -- then pick up your luggage and get from the airport to your destination.
8) Check out packaged tours
Sometimes packaged tours can cost less that pieceing together individual components of a vacation yourself.
9) Check out last-minute bargains
Airlines and hotels and cruise ships often have seats/rooms/cabins left unsold, so they offer deep last-minute discounts. If you don't mind the last-minute rush and aren't wedded to traveling to a particular place at a particular time, you could really snag some great bargains.
10) Set expectations
Finally -- and perhaps the most important -- set a budget that you can live with and work within that budget. Prioritize what you want out of the vacation (i.e. do we want to go to Hawaii to surf, or to lay on the beach, or trek into a volcano?) and be prepared to compromise (we can't do all 3, so let's forget the surfing and book a hotel across the street from the beach instead of a beachfront hotel -- we can still lay on the beach -- and use the savings to book a volcano trekking tour).
Good luck, and Bon Voyage!
Disclosure: I wrote this blog post while participating in the SocialMoms and Alamo blogging program, for a gift card worth $25. For more information on how you can participate, click here. The views and opinions expressed here are my own.